“People Let Me Tell You ‘Bout Kingdom Come”: It’s Still Radical

“Saved”, Elvis Presley’s tribute to his gospel roots in the 1968 NBC Special.

This number is so itself, and yet has pouring into it all the influences that went into making rock ‘n roll the amalgam that it was. It’s a bit of a miracle that it was included in the “comeback special” at all, and is part of Steve Binder’s genius. Binder wanted to reveal a Presley unleashed. Without a big rocking gospel number, we wouldn’t be getting Presley. But still: it’s radical to include a revival number in the middle of the scenes of a black-leather-clad Elvis grinding against his guitar on a tiny stage.

But that was Presley’s whole point, in his little monologue leading up to this number. Presley was a secular singer, at least that’s what he was most known for, but his gospel singing brings him to another level. There is a sincerity that is almost painful to witness. When utilized in the service of numbers like “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Mystery Train”, that spiritual sincerity morphs into an earthy expression of pleasure and an equally earthy awareness of mortality. Both. Pleasure and death. (Sorry, have Freud on the brain still). Even as a young boy on the Dorsey Brothers show, he tapped into pleasure and pain in equal parts, giving him that electric immediacy still palpable today in grainy Youtube clips. This pleasure/pain thing was the quality that had so called to him in gospel singers, especially black gospel singers, the ones he heard in churches and revival meetings as a young boy. Those people moved, they shivered and quaked in the presence of the Lord, they were not polite, they writhed and howled. This is rock ‘n roll. Presley got that. His path was not the gospel route, but I love his gospel numbers, and I love the “I’m Saved” number because it doesn’t just give us a glimpse of that side of Presley. It presents it to us full-on.

To my mind, in his live performances from the get-go Elvis Presley always seems at home, even with those slight glances around him when he sings – as though he is looking for someone in particular. But that’s part of what I mean: he is not so focused on the song that he becomes inhuman or unaware of what is going on around him (that whole three-dimensional awareness thing I mentioned before). He’s always looking around, up, down, throwing it out there, getting a response back, playing with the audience, teasing them, laughing at himself with them. So even with that slight residue of shyness and boyishness that he always had, that’s what I’m talking about when I say he always seems “at home”. Very few performers give me that feeling. That the stage is the only place they feel at home. Garland had it. Freddie Mercury had it. When I saw Liza Minnelli in Vegas, she had it. It’s embarrassing to some people, it’s too passionate, too much. We still are ashamed, somewhat, of those who choose to be entertainers. We want them to at least calm down about it. But those who need to be onstage, can’t. They will never be normal people. They will never fit in. The world will always be either totally lonely or completely embracing to such people. No in-between. Touched by the Gods, perhaps, but it’s a curse as well. The same can be said for the devout: those who live in a secular world but are filled with passion for Jesus. When asked in 1957, 1958, what was one of the biggest drawbacks to being so famous, Presley replied that he couldn’t go to church anymore. Elvis Presley had mixed feelings initially about his own path, not to mention all the premarital sex he suddenly found himself having. I don’t want to dwell on personal events that may seem like gossip, but I bring it up because he was an extremely personal performer, and all of that stuff went into his work.That very human struggle (divine/human, secular/religious) is PART of why he was so powerful as a performer. Not that he was openly ambivalent, but that he seemed to embody those contradictions, in all of their beauty and darkness. He WAS those contradictions. He understood them. When he sings gospel, all of that pours away from him in a giant rush.

When I see Elvis Presley singing gospel (especially here, where we get him full-on), I see him dig even more to his space on that stage, sinking comfortably and excitedly into the fact that this is where he belongs.

Like I said, it’s still radical.

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3 Responses to “People Let Me Tell You ‘Bout Kingdom Come”: It’s Still Radical

  1. Kent says:

    I believe that Elvis is PRIMARILY a gospel performer. This is a sort of open, or best kept, secret aspect of his magic career formula, and various career transformations. I think his adornments, and golden vestments, initially set him apart from other more secular or blues based performers, as well as were a significant part of his “act”. He was as greatly talented and beloved in the gospel world as Sam Cooke. He is one of the greatest gospel singers who has ever recorded, and performed material live and on record that no other secular artist in the top 40 ever attempted. God gave him a mountain.

  2. sheila says:

    Kent – I like that theory. (And his performance of You Gave Me A Mountain – all versions of it – blows my heart to smithereens). I think there’s something to it, something I sense here in him – in this clip and in others, and also on those gospel recordings which I have always loved. He goes somewhere else in them – although that passion and sincerity is apparent in everything he does … but everything else is stripped away with the gospel. It is the songs he loves best. It’s him and God and the music. It happens automatically for him. The Spirit is always there for him. It’s not a put-on, or anything “cute”. It’s like he aches to get back to it – you can feel it when he breaks into a gospel number on those live albums. The only competitive Grammys he ever won, if I’m not mistaken, were for his gospel records, which really says something.

  3. Kent says:

    In secular terms too, he sold like crazy in the gospel category. Without renunciation of rock. Little Richard and Al Green embraced total renunciation and preached, before their gospel works were accepted. The other Sun label acts steered fairly clear of gospel material. Rock writers mostly avoid this area, and so in mainstream press it is rarely acknowledged, and the man is not given his (LONG OVER-) due. Even discussions of Elvis’ extraordinary ability to cross over the established markets of the time focus on Rock/Pop – Country – R&B charts with tunes like Don’t Be Cruel (#1 across the board), never mentioning the widely beloved gospel of How Great Thou Art, one of his greatest, and barely skimming the incredible secular and gospel success of Crying In The Chapel.

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